Give luck a chance

In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley adeptly captures an idea that I’ve struggled to articulate well:

“Serendipity plays a big part in innovation, which is why liberal economies, with their free-roving experimental opportunities, do so well. They give luck a chance.”

Later, he described how nuclear energy has not advanced nearly as far as other areas, like electronics, because not many folks want to give luck a chance with nuclear since because of the risk.

In a world where improving requires trial-and-error, failure, learning and luck, nuclear energy remains in a state close to where it started because it does not have the luxury of errors and failure.

I’ve witnessed this same limitation in many organizations. Managers of mature companies, for example, too often think their job is to keep the company healthy by using their skill to beat the odds, rather than to play the odds. So, they squelch trial-and-error in the company in favor of their grand plans. They don’t give luck a chance. The thought of admitting that the future of the company depends on a bit of serendipity seems like madness to them.

Sometimes they are lucky to beat the odds, but more often the house wins and they leave the business less healthy than where they started.

Those in charge of US Soccer also do not give luck a chance, while soccer federations in other countries do. I believe that’s the the #1 or #2 reason why U.S. men’s soccer has trouble cracking the top 10 and has to generally rely heavily on dual citizens, that as a product of their dual citizenship spent good chunks of their lives in those soccer environments that do give luck a chance.

A huge eye opener in my early days in soccer was how dual citizens seemed well over-represented at the top of our player pool. That was the first hint something was up and I believe Ridley’s view helps explain why.

Why soccer sucks in the US

Brian Costin does a great in this interview describing how monopolies hurt and competition helps in soccer.

I especially liked the following:

…the top 50 metro areas are significantly underserved as well. Greater Manchester in England has roughly the same sized population as Chicago, Illinois, 2.8 million. Manchester has seven professional soccer clubs in just the top 4 tiers of sport (Tier One: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tier 2: Wigan Athletic, Tier 3: Bolton Wanderers, Rochdale, Tier 4: Oldham Athletic and Salford City). All of these teams have aspirations to make it to the top tier of the sport, and five of the seven have played at the top level at some point in their history. Two of these clubs are super clubs regularly competing in major continental competitions. 

On the other hand is Chicago, with one professional soccer club which happens to be the worst non-expansion team in MLS over the last decade despite having the country’s third largest economic market all to themselves. If the United States had an open soccer system like the rest of the world I would not be surprised to see a half dozen professional soccer clubs or more competing in different levels of the pyramid in Chicago within a few decades, not to mention many more clubs in the full metropolitan area which totals 9.5 million people. Selfishly, as a Chicago resident, I’d like to think one of these teams would have a little bit more ambition than the Chicago Fire. Competition tends to do that.

People steeped in American sports tradition don’t understand this.

Good handout for new soccer parents

One of the best things I read on the internet recently is Chris Kessell’s first handout to new parents in his soccer club.

It’s well written and efficient. I’ve tried to write about a lot of these concepts so they might be understandable to folks new to soccer and I know how tough it is. Chris did a great job.

Just a couple nits…

I agree with one commenter to his post about word-smithing, “Encourage your young player to make mistakes.”

I might suggest adding, “…and learn from them.”

In my experience, when I’ve ‘encouraged mistakes’, I’d see repeated mistakes without learning. When I asked why I keep seeing the same mistake, they’d respond, “You said mistakes are okay.” Adding the expectation about learning helps with that.

My other nit is that #9 should be #1. It seems like common sense, but it’s not in the soccer world.

What would I do different as a youth soccer coach now?

If I were to “coach” youth soccer with what I know today vs. what I knew when I was coaching, I would do things differently.

Rather than participating in organized leagues and tournaments, I would spend my time finding and organizing all-ages pickup games around town for the kids to participate in with kids from soccer cultures.

I think 2 hours a week of that would do 10x more good than the model of club training, games and tournaments within skill bands that is typical of youth soccer.

My “10x” estimate comes from playing against teams with kids from soccer cultures. Usually the score was, or could have been (if they didn’t let up), 10-1. Those kids were coaching and communicating with themselves on the the field.

The kids on those teams weren’t superstars. They were just competent in soccer’s skill and tactical basics by age 8 to 10 like American kids tend to be competent in baseball’s or basketball’s basics by the same age, for the same reasons — they have games and activities in their home lives that spur the development of those basics while having fun, so when they come to the team environment they have the basics to build on.

That doesn’t mean that they all become elite players. It means the same as when when 8U baseball teams play against kids with beginner skills equivalent to a 5U tee ball team, it will be a blowout. The 8U may look like superstars, but they aren’t. The just have more of the basics.

I remember watching tee ball games and thinking they should be scored by the number of outs a team can make at first base, because that is a rarer occurrence than scoring runs. The kids did not have the ability to consistently field the ball, decide where to throw, throw and make the catch at first base in the time it took the runner to get there. A typical game may have 2-3 outs at first and 25+ runs.

But, by age 8 or 10, most kids have played enough ‘catch’ with parents and friends in their yard, have to have improved their consistency on fielding, throwing and catching to 80 or 90% or better, and getting the out at first happens most of the time when it should.

The key problem with soccer in the U.S. is that most kids never get much in the way of something equivalent to ‘playing catch in the backyard.’ So, you wind up with older players that aren’t much better than where they were when they started, which I wrote about here.

Bang for your improvement buck: Love for the ball vs. love of playing

One problem with the way organized soccer works in the U.S. is that it gets kids to fall in love with playing soccer without falling in love with the ball.

The problem is that they love to play it, but they don’t love to practice it or have too many thoughts about getting better.

What’s not to love about playing? We make quite the production of it. Nice uniforms, nice fields, nice soccer complexes, officials and lots of folks cheering on the kids.

Even sideline toxicity sends the message that the kids are doing something important if adults get that worked up about it.

Why get better? They get to play either way, and occasionally, even if just by luck, they get to be the hero.

I agree with Tom Byer. Kids don’t quit soccer because of all the BS ‘the research’ points to. They quit when the kids who love the ball are kicking their teeth in and they realize they are years behind them and it would take years and effort that they aren’t willing to put in to catch up.

In other words, for all those years they loved to ‘play’ soccer, they never actually learned some of soccer’s ball basics.

Equal play time in youth sports, Part II

From Twitter (I’m Seth):

I wrote more about my experience here.

We overestimate how much development happens during games. We think it’s 80% of development when it really should be about 5%.

That overestimation makes us believe play time is more important then it really is, which is why coaches tweet about equal play time and parents might lose their marbles about it every now and then.

Organized games should be viewed like math tests. Tests aren’t the place to learn math skills. The learning happens while preparing for tests. The test is where you show what you learned.

If you did not prepare for the test, you might learn a few things while taking it, but just a tiny fraction had you prepared.

I think we would be much better off if we view organized games like that.

Bad News Bears Soccer

I’ve watched too many games over the past couple years of high school aged kids where the following passage from Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home, comes to mind:

“Soccer is a passing and shooting game, but passing and shooting has to come after learning how to control the ball. And passing and shooting comes so much easier if you do that.

I watch kids’ teams play soccer and despair sometimes. ‘How can they be so bad?’ I ask myself. Most kids can’t even move the ball from one foot to the other.

What’s the problem?

The problem is people don’t know what the problem is.”

The problem is that there are basics of the game and these kids don’t have them and as Tom points out, nobody seems to notice.

They can’t receive, pass or dribble.

Most of their first touches turn the ball over and often put the opponent in a better spot.

Passing completion is less than 20%, which is mostly luck when it does happen, and too many passes are right to the opponent.

Balls are often dribbled directly into the defender’s feet and lost, without any visible attempt go around the defender.

Goalkeepers repeatedly distribute the ball directly to the other team.

The few scoring chances come at the tail end of strings of lucky events, rather than purposeful action.

It’s mostly 50/50 ball as neither team ever has possession of the ball for more than a few touches. In fact, it’s a 50/50 ball even if the ball is at the feet of a player.

The players have no idea how to communicate with each other beyond blaming others for their own mishaps.

Dumb soccer debate: Isolated vs. opposed training

Is there a sport that doesn’t require both?

Is there a sport where the amount of one or the other doesn’t depend on the current skill level, or whether the movement is new to player?

Is there a sport where skills aren’t first built in isolated training and then honed under pressure and in competition?

‘But, Ronaldo was created in the opposed training environment of street soccer!’

Has anyone asked him if he ever worked on new moves on his own, at home or on the sideline waiting for next, before trying them in out against others?

Here’s what I notice about those on either side of the debate.

Advocates of opposed training deal primarily with players who develop 95% of their skills away from training, at home or in pickup. Out of sight, out of mind. Since they don’t see how much effort these players put into those skills, they think all players have that level of ability or they think they got to that level of ability with their opposed team training environment and discount the effort the players do on their own.

The opposed training advocates also tend to straw man the “isolated” side of the debate as if the other side believes isolated training is the only thing needed. I haven’t seen anyone who believes that. Rather, they support progression from isolated to competition.

Those who advocate isolated training typically work with players that do not work on their own or play pickup to develop their skills and need a healthy foundation of isolated training to build muscle memory before working up to using in competition.

How do you inspire love for the soccer?

I don’t know. Do you?

If so, please share.

I discussed this recently with another coach.

He told me something that I used to believe strongly, too: part of the club and coach’s responsibility is to develop interest in the sport.

I still believe that. But, my experience tells me that club and coach is a tiny part of that process for most kids.

Early on I thought sparking an interest would be easy. There were times I thought I was onto something, but the raised interest seemed to revert to the mean of barely interested after a short time.

Too often, unexpectedly, I found that teaching kids the fundamentals was counterproductive to sparking an interest. I discovered some kids loved the unstructured chasing of the ball and the game lost its magic for them as they learned there was some method to the madness and they were expected to learn it if they wanted to continue to play.

I also noticed that kids from soccer households seemed to like soccer more than those that didn’t. Pulisic and Sargent are great examples. It’s obvious that both were much more strongly influenced by coming from households where both parents had played at relatively high-levels than by their club experiences. Has either even mentioned an influential youth coach?

Few kids, maybe 10%, not from a soccer family developed a true interest in the sport. Some liked the activity, but not enough to do anything on their own. Others simply didn’t like it and quit as soon as their parents let them.

That’s why I like Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home. He’s onto something that we overlook about all sports: a good deal of interest level and skill acquisition occurs starting at age 1 or 2 and is a product of the environment and activities that engage the young kids in their home.

We believe kids ‘get coordinated’ between ages 7 and 10 and can suddenly throw baseballs with pinpoint accuracy, for example. But what really happens is that many kids have been playing catch with all sorts of things since they could walk and we overlook how instrumental those 6-7 years of unstructured development were.

Go some place where kids don’t grow up playing catch and watch an otherwise coordinated and athletic adult try to throw a baseball for the first time and they look as coordinated and accurate doing that as a typical American 5-year-old.

If the goal is to grow soccer and improve the men’s players at the top level in the U.S, I think there’s a 10x better chance starting with the route Tom has identified rather than what we currently have.

The system we currently have rewards participation, rather than progress, and keeps kids doing the activity of soccer (rather than developing as soccer players) long past what their interest and ability level would warrant in other sports.

How many 14-year-old competitive basketball players are there who never played pickup basketball or shot on their driveway or park hoop for hours on end? Probably not many, unless they are tall and can block shots.

How many 14-year-old competitive soccer players do we have who have never played pickup soccer or shot on a backyard or park goal for hours on end? Too many. Maybe most.

Bang for your buck: game time vs play time

Continuing with the theme of my previous post, if you see organized game time as the main way for players to improve, you’re making a bad investment.

You are making this investment if you ask your child’s coach, “How is she supposed to improve if she doesn’t get enough play time?”

Is a piano recital the only place a piano student improves?

Is a math student the only place to learn math?

You will get more bang for your buck to see piano recitals and math tests as ‘top of the pyramid’ exercises.

‘Top of the pyramid’ moments are meant to motivate effort in the middle and base layers of the pyramid to foster mastery.

In piano, lessons are the middle layer and self-practice is the base layer. In math, class is the middle layer and self-practice is the base. Without the base, recitals and math tests don’t go so well.

In soccer, games are the top of the pyramid, with practice in the middle and self-practice/play as the base layer.

Most kids who might miss a few minutes of their equal game time, get zero play time at home.

The best way to earn more game is with more play time.